School Board Fails its Students!


root - Posted on 15 February 2007

West Contra Costa County school board fails its low-income students of color by voting NO on a landmark alternative proposal to the California Exit Exam.

by Lisa Gray-Garcia/PNN

“Si Se Puede!” (Yes we CAN!) Caramel, honey, white and dark chocolate arms and multi-lingual voices rose in unison as they marched down the rain-slicked streets of Richmond and San Pablo toward a school board meeting deciding on a landmark challenge to the California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE).

On Monday April 10th, the West Contra Costa Unified School District (WCCUSD) voted no on a proposal brought forth by school board member Dave Brown which would have acted as an alternative to the California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE). The proposal included granting high school diplomas to students in the district who successfully completed all of their high school requirements as well as a “Senior Year Demonstration” even if they did not pass the much-maligned California High School Exit Examination (CAHSEE).

Hundreds of students, parents, teachers and advocates spoke in favor of the proposal in the two hour packed meeting of the board, while only a handful of mostly white administrators, businesspeople and residents of other parts of the county spoke in opposition.

School board member Karen Pfeifer also expressed opposition. "We are not a diploma mill. We don't just give them away," she lectured. "You earn them."

Notwithstanding Pfeifer’s comments directed at the students present, which were peppered with references to the students’ future lack of employability as “janitors and plumbers,” the Senior Year Demonstration includes a rigorous combination of portfolios, research and presentations

According to Multiple Measures Approaches to High School Graduation published by the School Redesign Network at Stanford University, alternatives such as the proposed demonstration are currently being enthusiastically used by several states such as Oregon, Vermont, Washington and Maine. The Stanford Study stated that rather than being detrimental to student learning, alternatives such as the Senior Year Demonstration encourages an ambitious range of thinking and performance skills in students who participate.

“Teaching is Not testing, “ said Olivia Araiza, program director from Justice Matters, a research and policy institute that works on creating racially just schools for low-income students of color.

Olivia continued, “The only thing we know for sure that the exit exam is doing is that it is creating a state-sanctioned underclass by denying hard working, smart students of color their diploma.”

The demographic backgrounds of the youth of West Contra Costa County who have not passed the CAHSEE mirror the overall demographics of students across the state that have not passed the test. Statewide, 19% of low-income students, 31% of English language learners, 18% Latino students, and 20% of African-American students have not passed the CAHSEE.

"I had to take a test to graduate,” said Al Kirkman, coach at Pinole Valley High. Kirkman’s shirt and legs matched, emanating a monochromatic sheen of whiteness into the dimly lit meeting room. "You (Karen Pfeifer) had to take a test to become a nurse, and you (Charles Ramsey) had to pass the bar to become a lawyer,” He concluded by saying that students who do not pass should be held back.

“I have completed all my classes, I got good grades, and yet I still can’t get a diploma,” said Trina Montgomery, 17, a high school student in the district.

“The Exit Exam is a distraction that takes us away from the crisis that exists in student learning, which is what we need to focus on before we institute more tests ,” said Rochelle Spence, parent of children in the district.

“This is not about abolishing the exit exam,” said Dave Brown in his closing arguments. “It’s about creating multiple measures so students can demonstrate proficiency,” he said. “This is about preventing a crime against our students and the constitution of the U.S. having precedence over the government violating their own laws.”

“We are hard-working students, we have earned our diplomas, this is not just,” said Richmond High School student Ronald Gaydan.

As the final vote was taken, there were several references made by Board members Karen Leong Fenton and Charles Ramsey to “abiding by the law” in regards to State Superintendent’s Jack O’Connell’s threat of legal action made to any school district that does not enforce the testing requirement.

The room became silent. Only the voices of politicians filled the thick air. ”The proposal fails 4 to 1.”

Simultaneously they stood. Brown and black eyes burning with the conviction of students who fight for their rights, who spend time every day doing homework, while also caring for their sisters and brothers, hermanos y hermanas, mothers and fathers, abuelitos y grandparents. Simultaneously they left the room.

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